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Top Theme Park Travel Tips

Written by
Theme Park Insider Editor
Published: April 8, 2014 at 8:21 AM (PT)

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Book U.S. domestic plane tickets 54 days before your departure for the best deal, according to an industry study. Start looking at prices 104 days before your visit to find a deal you can afford, and be sure to book at least 29 days before you leave to avoid the highest prices. For trips to Europe, book 151 days before your flight. For Asia, book 129 days before your flight. Bing Travel offers a nice airfare predictor which can help you decide when to buy your tickets.

SeaWorld's Penguin One, on Southwest Airlines

If you are visiting from outside the United States, you will not need a visa to enter the U.S. if you are from:

  • Most of the European Union countries and their territories
  • Australia
  • Brunei
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
Otherwise, visit the U.S. State Department website to learn about applying for a required tourism visa before you visit.

Also, if you are visiting American theme parks from outside the U.S., you really should buy medical insurance before visiting. There's no national health care coverage in the United States, and your national health care plan does not apply here, so if you need medical care outside the theme parks, you will face charges of up to thousands of dollars if you do not buy insurance.

To save money, don't buy anything inside a theme park that you can buy outside the park. Bring medicine, toiletries, and whatever other supplies you might need from home, or buy them in a store away from the park, to avoid in-park markups.

Follow your favorite theme parks on social media to learn about discounts and special events at the parks. Here is a list of official theme park social media accounts.

Theme parks that are open year-'round don't have an off-season to do maintenance, so they will close selected attractions for refurbishment at various times of the year. Check the park's refurbishment schedule before you book, to make sure that a ride you really want to experience won't be down while you visit. Look on the park's online calendars to see which rides will not be available on certain dates:

If you're thinking about visiting a theme park more than once during the year, consider buying an annual pass. Annual passholders typically get discounts on food and merchandise and might also get free or reduced-price parking. At some parks, an annual pass becomes a better deal than individual day tickets on just the second day of visiting the parks. (At Disneyland, it can take up to seven visits for a pass to "pay for itself.")

Six Flags annual passes are good at all Six Flags theme parks.

Cedar Fair theme parks (including Canada's Wonderland, Knott's Berry Farm, Cedar Point) sell a Platinum Annual Pass that is good at all Cedar Fair parks.

The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks also sell an Platinum Annual Pass that is good at all other SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks.

All theme parks will allow you to apply the cost of your current ticket to the purchase of a multi-day or annual pass if you decide to upgrade before leaving the park for the day. Ask at the park's guest relations office before you leave the park.

Walt Disney World allows visitors to make advance reservations for three attractions a day. Guests who have reserved a stay at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel may use the Fastpass+ system to reserve ride and show times up to 60 days in advance of their trip via the My Disney Experience link on disneyworld.com. Annual passholders and other ticket holders may reserve times up to 30 days in advance of their visit.

Anyone can reserve a dining time at Walt Disney World's table service restaurants 180 days before your visit by calling +1-407-WDW-DINE or by visiting the restaurant's page on disneyworld.com.

You can make advance dining reservations for Universal Orlando's table service restaurants and character meals by calling +1-407-224-4012. You also can make Universal Orlando dining reservations via OpenTable.com.

At Disneyland, call +1-714-781-DINE to make reservations for table service restaurants and Disney character breakfasts.

Most theme parks can accommodate people with food allergies or other dietary restrictions. Call the park's restaurant reservation number in advance, or ask at the guest services office for help when you enter the park.

Give your children a fixed amount of spending money before going to a park. (Or, better yet, have them earn it in the weeks leading up to your trip.) This way, you can help avoid whining and begging over souvenirs.

If you rent a car, always take photos of the exterior and interior and then email them to yourself to get a timestamp on them. You also should take photos when you return the car, to protect yourself against bogus "damage" charges that the rental car company might try to file after you've returned the vehicle.

You can find WiFi available in the parks at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Singapore, and Holiday World. In the United States, the cheaper the hotel room, the more likely it is to offer free WiFi, too. Though public WiFi is available in some parks, you might find faster speeds using a wireless LTE connection, if you have a cell phone with a data plan.

You can use Disney's My Disney Experience app to check Fastpass+ availability and to change your Fastpass+ reservations during your Walt Disney World visit.

Expect brief, but intense, afternoon thunderstorms when visiting the Florida theme parks during the summer.

Always arrive early to the park, so you can enter when the park opens and get on popular rides before lines build up for the day. Here are the top rides to do first at the 10 most-visited US theme parks (or to get a Fastpass+ reservation for, at the Disney parks):

  • Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, any princess meet-and-greet
  • Disneyland: Star Tours, Space Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure
  • Epcot: Soarin', Test Track, Mission Space
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios: Toy Story Midway Mania, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
  • Universal's Islands of Adventure: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Disney California Adventure: Radiator Springs Racers, Soarin' Over California
  • Universal Studios Florida: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Transformers The Ride 3D, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • Universal Studios Hollywood: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • SeaWorld Orlando: Manta, Kraken

Use your cell phone to take a picture of the nearest sign in the parking lot when you arrive, to remind you later where you left your car.

Are you celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or first trip to Disney? You can get a free personalized button at the guest relations office in any Disney theme park.

AAA members get a 10% discount on food and merchandise at Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood when they show their membership card.

If you are visiting from outside the United States, please note that posted prices in America do not include taxes, which will be added to your charges when you pay. Tax rates vary by local community, and hotel rooms and rental cars will include higher tax rates than other purchases.

Also, remember that waiters in table-service restaurants should be tipped, as almost all of their pay is from customer tips. Tips are no longer included in the Disney Dining Plan, so budget 15%-20% of your meal cost for tips.

If you're staying near the park, consider taking a break for a swim, nap or sit-down meal, in the middle of the day when the park is hottest and most crowded. Come back later in the afternoon or evening when crowds are beginning to thin and the temperature is coming down.

If you're visiting by yourself, always look for single rider lines to save time in line. Even if you're in a small group, if you're willing to split up, you can save time on rides with the longest lines by using the single rider queue.

Use parks' free package check services to store what you buy in the park and keep your hands free while you ride. Ask about it at any store.

If you're not a big eater, consider splitting restaurant meals, or order from the kids' menu, to save money and avoid having leftovers. Remember that you're not going to want to (or be able to) carry a "doggy bag" around the park all day.

In most US states, you can ask for a free cup of water at any restaurant.

When approaching counter service eateries, review the menu and have your selections in mind before you get to the counter. The folks waiting behind you and the cast member taking your order will be grateful.

Don't use lifts or tricks to make your child appear tall enough to ride on certain attractions. Height and health restrictions are there for a reason — typically not because the ride's normal operation would pose a danger, but because a sudden shut-down in the middle of the ride might. Don't take that chance, and don't get angry at park employees who simply are doing their jobs in trying to enforce safety rules to protect your family.

Never try to make a crying child go on a theme park ride. Many theme parks won't allow their employees to dispatch a ride vehicle with a crying child, which could lead to the entire ride having to shut down until your child calms down or exits, inconveniencing everyone in line behind you. If your child is crying, let others behind you in line go around you until your child is ready to ride.

Sun and heat cause more injuries at theme parks than all other causes combined. Stay well-hydrated with water, wear sunscreen as needed and don't hesitate to take breaks in the shade to avoid heat exhaustion, which can happen even on relatively mild days.

If you or anyone in your group is hurt or feels sick at any time during your theme park visit, go to the park's first aid center. If you are seriously hurt or ill, ask any theme park employee for assistance and they will call paramedics to come to you. You will not be charged for health care provided inside a theme park.

If an injury, illness, or personal emergency forces you to leave the park early, ask at the guest relations office about getting a comp ticket for a future visit to replace the day you paid for and weren't able to enjoy today because of the emergency. Most parks will provide you with the comp tickets in these cases.

Don't be a roadblock to others trying to walk in the park. Keep to the right and keep moving on park pathways. If you need to stop, step to the far side of the pathway first. Don't walk around like you're the only people in the place.

If you are wearing a backpack, remember that it takes up space, too. Don't swing to a side without first making sure that your backpack will not hit anyone.

If you drop or lose an item on a ride, it's possible that you'll be able to find it at the park's lost & found office later that day, or the next day. Even if you don't find it, leave a description at lost & found and if the park does find it later, they will send it to your hotel or home at no charge.